Faking it as a survival strategy

224139Cheats and Deceits: How animals and plants exploit and mislead. By Martin Stevens. Published by Oxford University Press (2016).

Last year, on a trip to Devon, I saw my first ever oil beetle (Meloe proscarabaeus). She was beautiful. Her black carapace glistened violet and blue in the sunlight. She was gravid and crawling along the footpath in search of a place to dig a nest burrow to lay her eggs. But what I did not yet appreciate was the extraordinary life cycle of these captivating beetles. The young of a related species, Meloe franciscanus, emerge from the nest and swarm up a nearby plant where they congregate in a mass mimicking the shape of a female solitary bee (Habropoda pallida) and release a chemical compound similar to the bee’s sexual pheromones.  This proves all too irresistible to male bees who are drawn to this aggregation and attempt to mate with it, presenting the larvae with the perfect opportunity to grab hold of the bee and clamber onto his back.  He then carries these passengers with him until he finds a female to mate with at which point the larvae instantly decamp onto the female. From here they then transfer to her nest where they devour the stored nectar, pollen and the bee’s eggs. The evolution of this complex mimicry is absolutely fascinating and forms part of Martin Stevens‘ interrogation of deception in Cheats and Deceits: How animals and plants exploit and mislead.

This book is an immensely informative and enjoyable exploration of the multiple roles deception plays in nature. Stevens sets out a detailed examination of a wide variety of instances of natural deception from well documented examples such as the evolution  of camouflage through industrial melanism in the Peppered Moth (Biston betularia) to current research into the resemblance to falling leaves in the movement and colouration of Draco cornutus, a gliding lizard from Borneo. It is to Stevens’ credit that this book makes for entertaining and effortless reading while clearly citing all the relevant research within context and pointing to areas where knowledge is still lacking.

The language of deception is important. Stevens takes the time to explain some of the more commonly used terms associated with deception such as camouflage (blending in to the environment), mimicry (assuming the appearance – be that visual, chemical, behavioural or acoustic – of another organism) and masquerade (taking the form of an inedible object – as with stick insects). Mimicry and masquerade therefore lead to misidentification while camouflage reduces detectability or impairs recognition. Mimicry also comes in various guises some of which can be described as: aggressive, when predators mimic harmless species to enable prey capture; Batesian, when a palatable species mimics the characters of an unpalatable species, as seen in the chicks of an Amazonian bird Laniocera hypopyrra mimicking toxic caterpillars; and imperfect mimicry, as with hoverflies roughly resembling certain species of wasps and bees (for which there are a number of competing theories).

This, of course, only scratches the surface of a vast area of research that Stevens specialises in as head of the Sensory Ecology and Evolution group at the University of Exeter where he continues to research these themes. His enthusiasm for his topic is highly infectious; you find yourself transported from an explanation of background matching in cuttlefish, to an historical aside concerning the development of military camouflage, and on again to a description of his own field experiments in testing the efficacy of disruptive colouration.

“We must trust to nothing but facts: these are presented to us by nature and cannot deceive. We ought, in every instance, to submit our reasoning to the test of experiment, and never to search for truth but by the natural road of experiment and observation.” ~ 18th-century chemist Antoine Lavoisier

The book does rely heavily on zoological examples, and although Stevens doesn’t entirely neglect plants his observations do tend to mainly focus on carnivorous plants and orchids. But to be fair, Stevens does make the point that more research into botanical forms of deception is required and suggests that this should be undertaken with a view to specifically exploring the roles of chemical signalling and sensory exploitation. One of the examples cited in the book is the orchid Epipactis veratrifolia which attracts female hoverflies to lay eggs on the plant by releasing chemicals that mimic the alarm pheromones of aphids (the food source of hoverfly larvae). This may rather be a means by which the orchid exploits an inbuilt perceptual preference for chemicals associated with hoverfly larval food sources – either way the plant is deceiving the insect in order to  ensure protection from aphid infestation.

A form of deception more commonly associated with orchids is that of exploiting male insects to pollinate plants by mimicking the female form through the shape and colouration of the flower. However, Stevens points out that this mimicry is sometimes (as in Cryptostylis orchids) not particularly convincing to human eyes, but is overwhelmingly so to the male wasp which tries to mate with the flower and thus collects the pollinium which will be deposited at the next Cryptostylis flower that he visits. With this example (as with the oil beetle, among others) the author cautions researchers of deception in nature to be aware of anthropocentric biases that may arise through our observations and study, and to (wherever possible) approach our subjects in the manner and with the senses of the deceived species.

I am utterly delighted and inspired by this book and am certain that I will return to it again and again as a point of reference. I have no hesitations in highly recommending it to researchers, field naturalists and those with a passing interest in natural history.


At the time of writing, Phil Torres and Aaron Pomerantz have discovered and documented kleptoparasitism of ants in a species of butterfly (Adelotypa annulifera) in the Peruvian Amazon which they believe might mimic ants through their wing patterns. This seems to me an ideal opportunity for further research looking at visual and chemical mimicry given both the wing patterns and larval associations.

Getting down and dirty with the Earthworm Society of Britain

I attended the Earthworm Society of Britain‘s annual general meeting at Cannock Chase Forest where I got to meet fantastic amateur enthusiasts, very knowledgable naturalists with a general interest in worms, and some hardcore earthworm specialists. It was an immensely enjoyable couple of days of field recording in various habitats found here including broadleaved woodland, grassland and heath as well as microhabitats such as dead wood.

“It may be doubted whether there are many other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world, as have these lowly organised creatures”. Charles Darwin

Since Darwin’s observations and experiments with earthworms was first published in 1881 under the title The Formation of Vegetable Mould, Through the Action of Worms, With Observations on Their Habits a new area of little-known research relating to these fascinating creatures was born. Despite this, we still find a lamentable lack of data regarding the distribution of earthworms throughout the UK and are continuing to research the ecosystem-wide implications of their below-ground activity.

In attending the society’s field day and AGM I was curious to find whether earthworms would pique my interest as a naturalist and scientist or whether I had developed a nostalgic yearning for simpler times. I have vivid memories of when, as a child, I would gingerly lift the edge of the damp burlap sack to scoop out trowel-fulls of fusty earth from half an oil drum in which my grandfather bred earthworms to bait his fishing hooks. I think the answer is that they are probably both true. This area is rich for contributions to research and recording while also being a great opportunity to get my hands stuck in some dirt and forget about my everyday worries. And when Amy Stewart so eloquently points out in response to the relevance of Darwin’s research and the significance of earthworms, that they’re “…only carrying out the natural order of things, folding the ruins of a farm, a city, or a society into the lower strata of the earth. When our civilizations end, and when we as individuals die, we don’t ascend, not physically. We descend. And the earth rises up to meet us”, how could I resist?

Day 1

Looking for earthworms is a messy affair and you have got to be prepared to get dirty. Armed with spades, sorting trays and all-weather gear we set out to see what the various sites had to offer.

ESBWe started with the damp, waterlogged woodland near  the classroom we had booked for the day and were immediately set upon by midges and mosquitoes. Ankle-deep in mud, and stippled with insect bites we dug 5 soil pits here with a reasonable haul of worms before making a break for an area of bracken further up the slope and farther away from the biting flies. We didn’t find any earthworms in the bracken pits, but were entertained by a greater spotted woodpecker feeding her voracious and loudly calling young in a nearby nesting hole before we again set off to a new site. A stop on the way to explore the banks of a stream and some adjacent dead wood in varying states of decay provided a few more worms for our count as well as other obligatory detritivores – millipedes, centipedes and woodlice.

It was in the pits dug from the grass verge alongside a footpath with flowering speedwell and buttercups  where the highest number of earthworms were found, along with leatherjackets and other unidentified fly and beetle larvae. Our small party of slightly bedraggled and filthy earthworm explorers then headed back to the Forestry Commission classroom. Looking to all the world like a group of unsuccessful treasure hunters or end-of-shift gravediggers we traipsed back to the promise of piping hot tea and freshly made sandwiches while a retinue of dog walkers, mountain bikers and Segway riders passed us by.  After lunch we could be found sitting in drifts of leaf litter in an old disused drainage ditch beneath a small stand of beech trees opposite the car park where we turned up a few more worms.

Then on to the AGM. First we were treated to a fascinating presentation on the worldwide diversity of earthworms (look out for the fried egg worm when in the Philippines) and an update on the ongoing search for the world’s longest earthworm (currently hotly contested between researchers in the Amazon and another in South Africa) by the society’s chair. Thereafter, the recording officer presented an assessment of the state of earthworm recording in the UK compared to other ‘more charismatic’ species such as butterflies – I think it’s fair to say that we have some way to go yet, but that significant progress has been made since the establishment of the society.  New members were elected to the committee (I am delighted to have been accepted as the new treasurer) and all matters were concluded and followed by dinner and drinks in a local pub.

Day 2

The next morning started with a sighting of a pair of Little Ringed Plovers on a derelict brownfield site near the hotel where we were staying before we bundled into cars and headed back to Cannock Chase with the intention of doing some mustard sampling,  digging soil pits in the heath and surveying areas that were being grazed by cattle. We set off on foot from the car park along the road until we reached a small wooded area with birch trees and much dead wood where we started collecting worms accompanied by the call of a cuckoo.

And then on to the next site where the shallow, stony and root-filled heathland pits that we eventually managed to dig were predictably uninhabited by earthworms; but we did manage to extract some from beneath some carpet tiles that had been scattered on a grassy area nearby using the diluted mustard concoction below (which I’ve been told is as indispensable as a spade to earthworm recorders).


A little further down the path a rather large felled tree was rolled away to reveal more worms and a host of other creatures including a palmate newt, a toad,  an unidentified moth larva, pill millipedes, centipedes and  carabid beetles. We were also treated to a view of a tree pipit calling from the top of an oak and the slightly stumbling flight of a scorpion fly. We then made our way on to the grazed area where we wanted to do our final sampling for the day. Or we would have, but as we walked past the cinnabar moths and the many humped yellow meadow ant nests we realised that we may have misjudged the distance somewhat, so picked up the pace but didn’t get there with enough time to do any sampling. As a consolation we did spy a green tiger beetle scuttle across the chalk path as we now hastened back to the car park for a final catch up before scrubbing our hands clean and going our separate ways.

More information

You may have noticed that for a blog post on earthworms, this has been fairly light on any detailed earthworm records. This is because we don’t yet have our full set of records from those who attended the field days, and for my part as I am still a complete novice I am still working my way through the ID process. For ID resources, there is an excellent key by Emma Sherlock and an online  multi-access key developed by Richard Burkmar, both of which I highly recommend.

For a bit more information about earthworms and some of the work of the Earthworm Society watch this short youtube video produced by Eco Sapien and the FSC explaining why earthworms are important.
To get involved you can either contact the Earthworm Society directly or if you first want to try your hand at surveying earthworms you can take part in the citizen science project Earthworm Watch.